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Massacre of Muslims in Burma Ignored

Motorcycles pass in front of a mosque that was torched during rioting in Meikhtila in March. (Photo: Reuters)

July 8, 2013

MEIKHTILA —
Their bones are scattered in blackened patches of earth across a hillside
overlooking the wrecked Islamic boarding school they once called home.
Smashed
fragments of skulls rest atop the dirt. A shattered jaw cradles half a set of
teeth. And among the remains lie the sharpened bamboo staves attackers used to
beat dozens of people to the ground before drowning their still-twitching
bodies in gasoline and burning them alive.
The mobs that
March morning were Buddhists enraged by the killing of a monk. The victims were
Muslims who had nothing to do with it—students and teachers from a prestigious
Islamic school in central Burma who were so close to being saved.
In the last
hours of their lives, police had been dispatched to rescue them from a burning
compound surrounded by swarms of angry men. And when they emerged cowering,
hands atop their heads, they only had to make it to four police trucks waiting
on the road above.
It wasn’t far to
go—just one hill.
What happened
on the way is the story of one of Burma’s darkest days since this Southeast
Asian country’s post-junta leaders promised the dawn of a new, democratic era
two years ago—a day on which 36 Muslims, most teenagers, were slaughtered
before the eyes of police and local officials who did almost nothing to stop
it.
And what has
happened since shows just how hollow the promise of change has been for a
neglected religious minority that has received neither protection nor justice.
The president
of this predominantly Buddhist nation never came to Meikhtila to mourn the dead
or comfort the living. Police investigators never roped this place off or
collected the evidence of carnage left behind on these slopes. And despite
video clips online that show mobs clubbing students to death and cheering as
flames leap from corpses, not a single suspect has been convicted.
International
rights groups say the lack of justice fuels impunity among Buddhist mobs and
paves the way for more violence. It also reflects the reality that despite
Burma’s bid to reform, power remains concentrated in the hands of an ethnic
Burman, Buddhist elite that dominates all branches of government.
“If the rule of
law exists at all in Myanmar, it is something only Buddhists can enjoy,” says
Thida, whose husband was slain in Meikhtila. Like other survivors, she asked
not to be identified by her full name for fear of retribution. “We know there
is no such thing as justice for Muslims.”
The Associated
Press pieced together the story of the March 21 massacre from the accounts of
10 witnesses, including seven survivors who only agreed to meet outside their
homes for security reasons. The AP cross-checked their testimony against video
clips taken by private citizens, many with the date and time embedded; public
media footage; dozens of photos; a site inspection, and information from local
officials.
The day before
the massacre began like every other at the Mingalar Zayone Islamic Boarding
School—with a call to prayer echoing through the darkness before dawn.
It was
Wednesday, March 20, and 120 drowsy students blinked their eyes, rising from a
sea of mats spread across the floors of a vast two-story dormitory.
Set behind the
walls of a modest compound in a Muslim neighborhood of Meikhtila, the all-male
madrassa attracted students from across the region whose parents hoped they
would one day become Islamic scholars or clerics.
The school had
a football pitch, a mosque and 10 teachers. It also had a reputation for
discipline and insularity—the headmaster, a strict yet kind man with a wispy
beard, only allowed students outside once a week. Muslims made up about a third
of Meikhtila’s 100,000 inhabitants, compared with just 5 percent of Burma’s
population, and they lived peacefully with Buddhists.
The Muslims,
though, were nervous after sectarian clashes in western Arakan State in June
and October last year killed hundreds and drove more than 140,000 from their
homes. Both times, the madrassa shut down temporarily as a precaution.
The unrest was
aimed at ethnic Rohingya Muslims, who have lived in Burma for generations but
are still viewed by many Buddhists as foreign interlopers from Bangladesh. The
hatred has since morphed into a monk-led campaign against all Muslims, seen as
“enemies” of Buddhist culture.
When classes
began on March 20, student gossip quickly turned to an argument on the other
side of town between a Muslim gold merchant and a Buddhist client, which had
prompted a crowd of hundreds to overrun the shop and set it ablaze.
That afternoon,
several Muslim men yanked a monk off a motorcycle and burned him to death.
Buddhist mobs in turn torched Muslim businesses and 12 of the city’s 13
mosques.
In Mingalar
Zayone, some teachers skipped courses. Then classes were canceled altogether.
Students rushed
to the dormitory’s second floor and gazed out of the windows, in shock. Black
and gray columns of smoke were rising in the air.
At dinner a
couple of hours later, the sound of a teacher weeping filled the hall. His
family home had been burned with his parents inside it. Some students pushed
their food away.
As the sun
slunk in a hazy sky, a Buddhist government administrator came to the gate of
the madrassa and took the headmaster aside.
“You need to
get your students out of here,” he warned. “You need to hide. The mobs are
coming—tonight.”
At sunset
prayers, the headmaster told everyone to collect their valuables, their money,
their ID cards—and prepare to leave. He asked them to remove their head caps,
Islamic dress and anything that might identify them as Muslim.
He never
explained why. He didn’t have to.
“If they try to
destroy this place, we’ll do our best to stop them,” he said. “But whatever
happens, we will not let you die.”
After dark,
they crept deep into a swampy jungle of tall grass a block away called the Wat
Hlan Taw, and the tall reeds swallowed the school’s refugees whole.
Most were
students and teachers. But at least 10 women and their children were also among
them, relatives or residents too terrified to stay in their own homes.
They sat down
in the mud. Nobody said a word.
Soon, they
heard the mob approaching—dozens, maybe hundreds of voices, a cacophony of
menace and anger that grew louder by the second.
The voices were
at the gate of their madrassa. And then they were inside, kicking in doors and
smashing windows.
In the darkness
of the Wat Hlan Taw, a teacher named Shafee with a stomach ailment reached for
his wife’s palm and squeezed it hard.
“If they find
us,” he whispered nervously, “you know I won’t be able to run.”
“Don’t worry,”
his wife, Thida, replied, cradling their 3-year-old son in her arms. “We’ll be
together, every step. I’ll never leave you.”
As the long
night wore on, the madrassa burned down.
At 4 a.m.,
Buddhist prayer gongs rang out, and the mobs began shining flashlights into the
Wat Hlan Taw. Some Buddhists fired rocks into the bush with homemade
slingshots.
“Come out,
Kalars!” they shouted, using a derogatory word for Muslims.
The Muslims ran
to a neighboring compound, owned by a wealthy Muslim businessman. Some tore
down a bamboo fence to get inside.
The mobs were
not far behind.
Thida heard a
boy screaming behind her, a student who had been trying to call his mother on
his cell phone.
He had waited
just a few seconds too long to run.
As the first
rays of dawn touched Mingalar Zayone, Koko, a quiet, heavy-set 21-year-old
student, peered over the compound’s thin fence and felt numb. Men clutching
machetes and sticks were girding for a fight outside.
Hundreds more
were gathering on a road running across a huge embankment that shadowed the
neighborhood’s western edge. The embankment had always been there, but now it
seemed to seal them inside the bottom of a huge, oppressive bowl from which
they could not escape.
Koko could
almost feel the blood draining from his cheeks. He felt weak, no longer human.
“We’re
trapped,” he thought, “like animals.”
Some students
were frantically making calls for help—to parents, to police. Some were
chanting loudly. Others were scouring the property for anything they could use
to defend themselves—wooden boards, rocks the gangs outside had thrown at them.
By the time an
opposition lawmaker, Win Htein, arrived around 7:30 a.m., dozens of helmeted
riot police were on the scene. The security forces, equipped with rifles and
gray shields, had formed lines to keep the Buddhist hordes away from the
Muslims.
Win Htein saw the
head of police and the district commissioner standing nearby, and the bodies of
two dead Muslims on the edge of the Wat Hlan Taw. Over the next 45 minutes, he
watched in horror as mobs of men chased five more students out of the bush, one
by one, and hacked or bludgeoned them to death in broad daylight.
As stone-faced
police officers stood idle just steps away, crowds cheered like spectators in a
Roman gladiator show.
“They must be
wiped out!” one woman shouted.
“Kill them
all!” shouted another. “We must show Burmese courage!”
Win Htein felt
nauseous. He wanted to vomit. In two decades of prison and torture under brutal
military rule, he had never seen anything like this.
When he tried
to convince people in the crowds to spare the Muslims, the mobs began
threatening him. One Buddhist man demanded bitterly: “Why are you trying to
protect them? Are you a Muslim lover?”
An officer
advised Win Htein to leave.
Shortly after,
a monk and four policemen offered to escort the trapped Muslims on foot to several
police vehicles on top of the embankment.
“We’ll protect
you,” one officer said. “But the students must stop chanting. They must put
down their weapons”—their sticks and stones.
As the teachers
debated what to do, they realized their time had run out. The crowds were
flinging long bamboo staves wrapped with burning fabric over the fence like
giant matchsticks. The compound was on fire, belching orange flame and black
smoke into the air.
The group
emerged slowly with their hands behind their heads, like prisoners of war.
Police led them
down a narrow dirt track—a long line of desperate people, crouching in terror.
Almost immediately, they were stoned by livid residents of a tiny Buddhist neighborhood
who attempted to block their way.
What followed
was a gantlet from hell, an obstacle course that came with its own set of
macabre rules: Do not run, or they will chase you. Do not fall, or you may
never get back up. Do not stop, or you may die.
Police fired
several rounds into the air, but the crowds attacked anyway. A teacher was
knocked to the ground, and panicked students stepped over his body, sprawled
face down in the dirt.
Koko saw a
friend hit across the forehead with a hoe. When he tried to stand again, five
men with knives dragged him off.
The mobs then
attacked Koko with machetes from behind, slicing six palm-sized gashes into the
flesh of his back. Blood stained his yellow shirt. He fell and blacked out.
One officer,
struck in the face by a rock, apparently by accident, shot a Buddhist man in
the leg. The crack of gunfire woke Koko, who realized he had been left for dead
and leapt to his feet to catch up with the group.
As they moved
inside the Buddhist neighborhood on the path to the trucks, police ordered the
Muslims to squat down.
Crowds taunted
and slapped them. Several women forced them to bow their heads and press their
hands together in prayer like Buddhists. And according to testimony gathered by
Physicians for Human Rights, they also shoved pork, which is prohibited in
Islam, into the mouths of the Muslims.
One man swung a
motorcycle exhaust pipe into a student’s head. Another hit him with a
motorcycle chain. A third stabbed him in the chest.
“Don’t kill
them here,” yelled one monk. “Their ghosts will haunt this place. Kill them up
on the road.”
The monks said
the police should round up the women and children and let them go first. When
Thida refused to let go of her husband, a Buddhist man shoved a palm in his
face and forced them apart. Another man she recognized tried to grab her
3-year-old.
“He’s still
breast-feeding. Leave him alone!” she shouted, pulling away.
The man then
grabbed her 9-year-old, but pushed him back in disgust when he wailed.
Amid the
confusion, one Buddhist woman hurriedly waved two of Thida’s teenage daughters
into her home to protect them, in an act of kindness. Both would be reunited
with Thida several days later, unharmed.
As Thida and
about 10 women and children climbed the hill, several riot police pushed back
the stick-wielding crowds around them with open palms. A video reviewed by the
AP records a man trying to dissuade the mobs, saying: “Don’t do this. There are
kids there as well.”
But the
violence continued.
Buddhists still
clearing the Wat Hlan Taw forced a thin 17-year-old student named Ayut Kahn out
into an open patch of low grass. In a scene captured on video by at least two
different unidentified people, the boy—a Meikhtila native with a stutter who
loved football—was struck 24 times by nine people with long sticks and bloody
machetes. Five blows were from a monk.
“Look! Look!”
one Buddhist bystander shouted from the top of the embankment as the student
was murdered. “The police are heading down there, but they aren’t doing
anything.”
The last time
Thida saw her husband, he was struggling to climb the hilltop road where she
waited anxiously beside police. Two teachers were by his side, their arms
locked in his. Mobs swarmed the steep embankment between them.
Shafee’s face
was pale. He had never looked this way—so exhausted, so drained, so helpless.
Across the
hillside, Thida could hear the cries of hate.
“Kill the
Kalar! Don’t leave any of them behind!”
“Clean them up!
They are just dirty things!”
Somewhere
below, several students tried to make a run for it. Crowds chased them.
Somebody
pummeled 14-year-old Abu Bakar across the cheek with a bamboo stick. Somebody
else sliced the back of 20-year-old Naeem’s legs with daggers. Yet another
clubbed Arif—the teacher who had wept at dinner the night before—to the ground.
Police stood on
both sides of the hill watching, unmoved. When a boy sitting with them at the
bottom of the slope looked up, an officer slapped his head and shouted: “Keep
your eyes down!”
A frantic monk
waved a multicolored Buddhist flag screaming for the killing to stop. “This is
not the Buddhist way!”
The crowd
backed away briefly, but police left the wounded behind.
One video clip
of the moments that followed shows seven Muslim men curled on the ground
beneath a grove of rain trees. The faces of at least three are heavily covered
in blood. A man in a green jacket swings a bamboo stave down on the wounded
with all his might.
The camera pans
to another group of three other crumpled men. One is Shafee, who is lying face
down, pulling his legs in toward his stomach.
“Oh, you want
to fight back?” a voice says, laughing.
A grainy video
filmed shortly after shows flames leaping from a pile of 12 charred corpses in
the same spot, and onlookers backing away from a smoky body rolling down the
hill. Another video shows crowds cheering.
Thida could
only smell the burning flesh. She hugged the leg of a police officer standing
beside her and asked: “Hey, brother. Please. Please. What is happening to us?”
“Shut up,
woman,” the officer replied. “Keep your head down. Don’t you know you can die
here, too?”
In all the
mayhem, several dozen police reinforcements arrived to escort the remaining
Muslims to the hilltop and load them onto trucks.
As they pulled
away, Koko knew he would never return to Meikhtila.
“There is
nothing left of our lives here,” he said to himself. “There is only Allah.”
The trucks took
the traumatized survivors to a police station, where they were offered water,
and, by at least one officer, an apology.
In all, about
120 Muslims survived—among them, 90 students and four teachers. They stayed
several days at a police station before being bused to another town to join
their families.
The dead
totaled 32 students and four teachers, according to the headmaster, who
cross-checked their deaths with families and witnesses.
The head of
state security in the region, Col. Aung Kyaw Moe, who ordered the rescue
operation, said “10 or 15” died on the way. But video obtained by the AP, shot
by unidentified witnesses touring the area after the killings, contradicts that
claim. Two videos alone indicate at least 28 people died, most of them
blackened corpses with fists and arms reaching into the air; one is
decapitated.
When the people
filming pass one body, a voice can be heard saying: “Hey, is that a child?”
“No, he’s just
short,” another replies, chuckling.
The police
present that day were the only ones with rifles and guns, which would have been
no match for the crude weapons carried by the mobs. But while they rescued more
than 100 Muslims, they did not stop the massacre of dozens of others.
“They were of two
minds. We could see that,” the headmaster said. “Some of them tried to help us
… but in the end, they all watched us die.”
Win Htein, the
lawmaker, said there were two explanations: Either the “police didn’t get any
order from above [to shoot], or they got the order from above not to do
anything.”
Aung Kyaw Moe,
the regional security chief, insisted he had given authorization to fire. But
he said police didn’t shoot because “doing so could have angered the crowds and
made the situation even worse.”
He said even
though 200 police were deployed to the area, the crowds outnumbered them, and
Muslims died because “some of them tried to run.”
“They scattered
and our forces could not follow every one of them,” he said. “They had to take
care of the rest of the people they were guarding. … On the front lines, some
things cannot be clearly explained.”
During a tense
50-minute interview, Aung Kyaw Moe said he was “satisfied” with the job police
had done.
But he grew
increasingly agitated, saying five times that it was “inappropriate” to ask for
details because “you’re not writing a novel, you’re not making a movie … you
don’t need to know.”
The first
people prosecuted for the violence in Meikhtila were not the Buddhist mobs. The
first were Muslims.
On April 11, a
court sentenced the gold shop owner and two employees to 14-year jail terms for
theft and causing grievous bodily harm. On May 21, the same court sentenced
seven Muslims to terms ranging from two years to life for their roles in the
killing of the monk the day the unrest began.
On June 28, a
Buddhist man was convicted of the murder of a Muslim elsewhere in Meikhtila and
sentenced to seven years in jail, according to state prosecutor Nyan Myint. He
said 14 Buddhists have been charged and are on trial for the Mingalar Zayone
killings, some for murder, but none has yet been convicted.
Justice “is a
matter of time,” he said. “The courts are proceeding with the trials and have
no prejudice or bias against any group.”
Aung Kyaw Moe,
the security chief, said all those arrested were residents of Meikhtila, but he
gave no other details.
No police have
been reprimanded.
Similar
patterns of justice have played out in other towns.
After Buddhist
mobs burned several villages in the central town of Okkan in April, the first
convicted was a Muslim woman accused of starting it by “insulting religion.”
She had knocked over the bowl of a novice monk. Muslims say it was an accident.
And after more
Buddhist mobs rampaged through the eastern city of Lashio in May, setting
Muslim shops alight, the first convicted was the Muslim man authorities say
triggered the unrest by dousing a Buddhist woman with diesel fuel and severely
burning her.
One Muslim man
was killed in each incident, but no one has been prosecuted.
After the
massacre in Meikhtila, the corpses rotted for at least two and a half days
before the government sent workers to haul them away, some on garbage trucks.
The remains were taken to Meikhtila’s main cemetery, where they were simply
burned again in an open patch of red dirt with used car tires and gasoline and
left for stray dogs to pick through.
Authorities say
they did not hand the bodies back to the relatives of the dead because they
were too badly burned to be identified. But families of those slain say they
were never even asked, and never given the chance to bury their loved ones
according to Islamic rites.
No Muslim
families have dared visit the cemetery or return to the massacre site.
The mood in the
neighborhood is still hostile to outsiders. When AP journalists visited the
area, residents stared silently.
One barefoot
woman washing clothes beside a well where a pile of charred corpses were dumped
claimed she had no idea what happened that day, because she wasn’t there.
Her friend
looked up and said: “Tell him what started it. Tell him about the gold shop,
the monk who was killed.”
Ma Myint shook
her head, squinting up briefly in the direction of the hilltop.
Those bones
“mean nothing to me,” she said.
The school’s
headmaster pulls out a single sheet of blue-lined paper from his pocket. On it,
handwritten, are the names and ages and hometowns of the dead.
What bothers
him the most isn’t the decision he made to take his students into the Wat Hlan
Taw, or the nightmares he has had since. It’s that those who were slaughtered
could have been saved.
Most of those
beaten to the ground did not die immediately, he says.
“Had anybody
stepped in to help them even then, to push back the mobs, to pick them up and
take them to the hospital—they could have lived,” he says.
He has told
many of the 90 students who survived to lie low and not testify for fear of
reprisal. He dreams of gathering them together again and rebuilding his school
elsewhere, but he is too afraid of sectarian violence flaring anew to say where
or when.
“Where is safe
in this Myanmar?” he says. “Who will protect us?”
On March 21,
the headmaster urged his students not to fight back.
“Next time, we
will defend ourselves,” he says quietly, “because we know that nobody else
will.”